Chicago museum aims to increase representation of American Muslims

By Aqilah Allaudeen
Medill Reports

Religious freedom as a First Amendment right is something that many American Muslims who immigrated from countries such as Albania, will never take for granted. The country had a communist government that declared atheism as the country’s official religion until 1990.

“If you were to wear a cross around your neck, you’d either be killed or go to jail. [If you] have a Quranic verse on your wall and you were found out, same thing,” said Hysni Selenica, an American Muslim whose family came from Albania, in an audio recording. “So I understand what I have, and I am going to practice my religion to the best of my ability.”

The recording is part of a growing archive initiated by the Chicago History Museum. The museum held a rough cut “listening party” Monday featuring audio stories of American Muslims from the city and suburbs. The audio party was a sneak peek into an exhibition that the museum plans to launch in Oct 2019 that will focus on the stories of American Muslims residing in the Chicago area. The exhibition will also include artifacts from American Muslims but its main focus will be on the oral histories of those interviewed for the recordings.

The listening party was a collaboration between the Chicago History Museum and the Muslim American Leadership Alliance, or MALA. The alliance is a civic and community organization committed to promoting individual freedom, diversity and celebrating Muslim American heritage. Peter Alter, the historian and director of the museum’s Studs Terkel Center for Oral History, said that the event was the first public showcase of the stories of American Muslims. He hopes that it will add diversity to the voices represented in the existing collections in the museum, he said.

“There aren’t many American Muslims being represented in our collections right now,” he said in an interview. “It’s frustrating to us, as historians, to have a lack of documentation of any particular demographic.”

He added that 62 people have volunteered so far to participate in interviews lasting anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes. The collection of these oral histories began just over two years ago. The collection of stories come from American Muslims who were born into the faith as well as those who converted.

Some interviewees, who became Muslims later in life, talked about their biggest concerns when converting to Islam and the impact that the religion had on their lives.

Panelist Andrea Ortez, said at the listening party that sustaining her Latino culture was an important concern.

“Choosing to not consumer pork or pork products was not something that I felt like I was losing culture in the process,” she said. “I grew up vegetarian and my mother always dressed modestly so it wasn’t a big change. I didn’t feel like I was losing my culture.”

She added that when she fell in love with her current husband, who was born into the Muslim faith, she strove to find a balance between preserving her own identity while adopting her new religious belief.

“I chose not to change my name when I converted,” she said. “To this day, I don’t wear (a) hijab… I feel like I can operate out of a strong sense of modesty without covering my hair. This has been the way in which I balance, kind of, these two worlds.”

With anti-Muslim sentiments rising under President Donald Trump’s administration, the project took a blow in the beginning, Alter said.

“The number of people coming to us for interviews fell off a cliff after the elections in 2016,” he said. “It probably lasted from the November of 2016 till the next February, so I definitely had to work harder to get the interviews coming in.”

Panelist Clyde El-Amin, who shared his audio history, said that faith was about finding common ground among people of different beliefs despite the growing tensions between people belonging to different demographic groups in the U.S.

“Faith to me is all about the commonalities between religions,” he said. “Faith drives everything that we do and I’ve never liked drawing sharp distinctions between different faiths.”

El-Amin added that he had practiced a number of different faiths before finding Islam.

“In fact, 85 percent of what I needed to be Muslim was taught to me by my Christian family,” he said with a laugh.

El-Amin, Ortez, Imani Muhammad and Zerina Spahic – all panelists –agreed that religion to them was a personal choice that they made to improve their own lives.

“Religion was never forced in my household,” Spahic said. “The biggest challenge I had to overcome was probably the social constructs that come with the religion… when society tells you that you have to look or act a certain way.”

Muhammad added that religion helped her to steer away from bad influences that could have led her down a more destructive path.

“It gave me discipline and helped to shape me to become the best person that I could be,” she said.

Photo at top: Panelists discuss their personal stories and experiences as American Muslims during Monday’s “listening party” at the Chicago History Museum on Oct 22, 2018. (Aqilah Allaudeen/MEDILL)